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How to Deal with Pain Flares

By Christina Battisti | Updated on Jun 7, 2019

Medically reviewed by Srinivas R. Nalamachu, MD

For those that suffer from chronic pain, pain flares are an unfortunate fact of life. When associated with cancer, pain flares are called “breakthrough pain” but the symptoms are very similar. A pain flare is a sudden increase in pain, typically associated with inflammation of a joint, muscle, or other areas. The pain usually occurs in patients who already have issues with chronic pain. The source of that chronic pain can vary from autoimmune disorders and arthritis to fibromyalgia.

Why Do Pain Flares Occur?

The level of pain that occurs with a pain flare can vary from moderate to severe; the pain usually lasts a short amount of time. The pain can be so intense that it may make someone worry that a new condition or symptom has popped up but, usually, it’s just a side-effect of an existing issue. If you suffer from a chronic pain condition, it’s important to talk to your doctor to differentiate suspected breakthrough pain from the pain you may experience more regularly as part of your condition.

Flares can be spontaneous and occur randomly with little or no warning. At the same time, the pain can be triggered by vigorous activity such as exercising and even routine movements like coughing. Flares can also stem from emotional triggers like stress and can show up abruptly when pain medication wears off.

When you experience a pain flare from a chronic condition, staying active and focusing on your mental health can help. (Source: 123RF)

How Can I Manage a Pain Flare

While pain flares occur spontaneously, you can keep an eye out for warning signs to help you prepare.

Managing breakthrough pain can vary based on the root cause. At the same time, standard rules do apply:

Plan ahead, at home and with your doctor. Work with your rheumatologist or pain specialist to come up with a plan of attack for when a pain flare hits, sometimes an adjustment to your medication may be needed to alleviate some of the pain. At home, plan to have anything that helps ease pain flares (ice packs, heating pads and, if you work, make sure you have enough sick days to cover any time you may need to be away from work and off your feet).

Stay healthy. Wash your hands and avoid catching colds or getting any kind of infection as these can be triggers for pain flares.

Keep active. To keep yourself strong and keep pain flares at bay, stay active. Light activity like walking, biking or swimming can keep your heart healthy and help you stay strong. Be sure to make some time for rest, too. While a body in motion stays in motion, too much activity can wear you out and trigger pain flares on top of exhaustion.

Manage your mental health. Keep stress levels low by participating in activities that keep anxiety at bay. Try meditation or visualization techniques or participate in activities that help you relax like gardening or book clubs. If you are experiencing depression, talk to your doctor about getting a referral for a psychologist. Many pain clinics and multidisciplinary practices make this access part of the overall care plan.

Try Cold (or Warm) Comfort. When pain hits, treat it with care. Hot and cold pain treatments do well to help alleviate different kinds of pain. For acute pain, cold is a safe bet and for chronic pain, heat will help. If your pain is localized to the joints, a heated compress can help alleviate it by increasing blood flow and relaxing muscles. A cold compress is also effective in constricting blood vessels and disrupting pain sensations. Be sure to apply either heat or cold for no more than 15 minutes at a time, two to four times a day.

Dealing with pain flares and breakthrough pain can be a hassle for those already muddling through chronic conditions or dealing with cancer treatment. However, with a little planning and patience, sufferers can prepare for what’s coming and get through the pain with for however long it decides to stick around.

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